Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: George netting big gains from summer of stability

Newly minted All-Star enjoying best season (and some deserved MVP chatter)

To hear his critics tell it, Paul George’s days as an All-Star — let alone as an All-Star starter — were supposed to be over.

The Western Conference was too stacked with frontcourt talent. And Paul took fire from all directions after he opted to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer instead of joining other potential suitors. There wasn’t going to be enough All-Star oxygen in OKC for both George and triple-double machine (and 2017 Kia MVP) Russell Westbrook, they said.

But it turns out there’s more than enough shine to go around. George’s decision to stick with what he and Westbrook started building in their first season together has worked out brilliantly for all involved.

He’s an All-Star starter in the Western Conference, as was revealed Thursday, and also a solid MVP candidate himself in what’s turning out to be his finest NBA season.

“When I got traded here, it was almost (like) people thought it was gonna be the end of me being an All-Star, coming out the West,” George told reporters after dropping 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans last night. “But God is good.”

George recently talked about his comfort level, on and off the court, in Oklahoma City. He said he’s at peace with his life, his game and his place in the league as one of its elite players.

His comfort level shows in his play, too. He’s notching career highs in scoring (27 points per game) and rebounding (7.9 rpg) to go along with 4.1 assists per game and 2.3 steals per game (second on the team to Westbrook).

“It just feels honestly, man, like everything has slowed down at this stage of my career,” George said. “All the years I’ve been in this league, it’s like … say a kid is being taught algebra. And he’s got all of these math problems going on. And everything, I’m just pulling from it and grabbing it and I can see through concepts and understand what’s going on out there. It’s a fun way to play, when there aren’t any crazy surprises that anyone can throw at you.

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The top five this week in the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 36.3 points, 8.3 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals

If you were wondering just how out of hand things have gotten since Harden’s franchise-record, NBA season-high and career-best 61-point outburst at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, consider that he’s averaging an absolutely filthy 52.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.6 steals in his past five games. And the Rockets need all of what he provides as they try to keep the pace in the Western Conference with several critical players unavailable right now. Harden’s streak of consecutive games scoring 30 or more points is at 21 (and counting), the fourth-longest streak in league history behind three different Wilt Chamberlain runs of 30 or more points. Harden tied Kobe Bryant’s record for an opponent scoring high at Madison Square Garden, coming up a point short of Carmelo Anthony’s scoring record. He also saved the Rockets late, with a steal and dunk to seal the win. Before the game, Harden was hunting for the kind of “Garden moment” he ended up enjoying. The Rockets need him to keep it all up for the foreseeable future.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.3 steals

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are riding the wave of a five-game win streak into tonight’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass). Antetokounmpo has been tremendous during the streak, averaging 25.6 points on .558 percent shooting during victories against Atlanta, Miami, Memphis, Orlando and Dallas. The schedule cranks up a bit after Friday, with stops in Oklahoma City (Sunday at 6 ET, ESPN), Detroit (Tuesday at 7 ET, NBA League Pass), Toronto (Thursday at 8 ET, TNT), Washington (Feb. 2 at 7 ET, NBA League Pass) and Brooklyn (Feb. 4 at 7:30 ET, NBA TV). As good overall as the Bucks have been, they are vulnerable on the road (where they’ve suffered eight of their 12 losses this season). Antetokounmpo is the one outlier, with numbers that are nearly identical at home and on the road. The Bucks need him at his dominant best during this upcoming stretch.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 29.5 points, 5.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals

The Warriors have rolled up nine straight wins and show no signs of struggling with adding DeMarcus Cousins into the mix. Curry continues to show why he is one of the most resilient performers in the game, bouncing back with a monster 38-point game Thursday (on 14-for-24 shooting) after a brutal 11-point effort (on 3-for-12 for shooting) Monday against the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s no stretch to think James Harden will win Western Conference Player of the Month honors for January. But Curry would be a lock most any other time with the work he’s put in to open 2019 (31.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 6.1 apg on 50.2 percent shooting and 42.6 percent on 3-pointers). Warriors coach Steve Kerr showed prudence in allowing Curry back into the rotation from that groin injury earlier this season. Curry looks as fresh as he has in quite some time. He’s feeling so frisky that he’s even thinking about working on his above-the-rim skills during games (see his Shaqtin’ moment against the Lakers). Jokes aside, Curry is soaring and it couldn’t come at a better time for the Warriors.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 27.2 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 blocks

Is there any player in the league having more fun competing these days than Embiid? He pushed through lower back tightness to ensure that he played in the past week’s statement games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. Embiid torched each of those foes for 30 or more points and has scored 30 or more in four of his past five games. He was often been the most dominant player in each of those games, be it on offense or with his rebounding and shot-blocking on defense. Embiid’s personal dust ups with both Russell Westbrook (in a loss) and James Harden (in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day win) overshadowed how Embiid wore out his big man counterparts in OKC and Houston. He saved plenty for the Spurs on Wednesday, finishing with 33 points, 19 rebounds, three assists and a block. The Sixers are drafting off Embiid, who has an NBA-best 21 games with 30 or more points and 10 or more rebounds. Philadelphia has won five of its last six games and is within a game of the No. 3-seeded Indiana Pacers.

5. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals

Not that he needed validation, but George’s decision to re-sign with Oklahoma City last summer is looking better by the day. He had his moxie questioned by those who felt he shied away from the challenge of playing in Los Angeles, where he would have starred alongside LeBron James (and whoever else the Lakers would have signed). But would he have been as perfect a fit in L.A. as he is in OKC? We’ll never know. And George shouldn’t even entertain that discussion after how he’s playing this season. He’s been every bit as critical as Russell Westbrook to the Thunder’s rebound from their early-season hiccups and 0-4 start. George’s game-after-game brilliance has the Thunder looking capable of challenging the Golden State Warriors in ways perhaps no other West team can. The Thunder’s defensive prowess, led by George, is what sets them apart from other challengers. And you better believe George will relish the opportunity to embrace that challenge – should it happen months from now.

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The next five:

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

7. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

9. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

And five more: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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